ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Reflections”

In Memoriam – of graveyards and mothers

A recent survey here in Sweden has concluded that a majority of Swedish people feel we should spread the ashes of those that have died in the great outdoors. A gust of wind and what little remains of a human after cremation would soar upwards, spread and eventually settle back on the ground.

No need, according to this survey, for headstones. No need for a little plaque engraved with the name of the recently deceased. Just this anonymous letting go and then the living can get back to their daily lives, the hole left behind by the deceased filled in by other things, other people.

20180406_180235I like walking in old churchyards. I stroll from headstone to headstone, read the names and the dates. In doing so, I remember that they once existed, even if they’re people I never knew nor have any connection with. When it comes to my own dead, I don’t have any headstones to visit. The lease on my great-grandparents’ plot was not extended in time, and one day my mother got a letter informing her that as there had been no extension, the remains of my great-grandparents and my maternal grandparents had been dug up and reburied in the common memorial grove. She took it rather badly. Even more so when we drove all the way up to her hometown to discover just how depressingly anonymous their new resting place was. Still, at least they had their names there.

My mother died recently, so the whole issue of headstone/plaque vs anonymous resting place has been up for discussion. We didn’t have a choice: my mother had left instructions and wanted her cremated remains to be put to rest anonymously in the same grove where my father’s ashes were interred twenty years ago.

20180406_180453Those that rest in this grove do so without names. Their ashes come in cardboard boxes and are buried by the churchyard staff so that no one knows exactly where their loved ones’ ashes ended up. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, a circular space bordered by a hedge and with a couple of very old trees that strive upwards to the heavens. It’s a stone throw’s distance from one of Malmö’s central squares, and so here the dead are surrounded by life, by the sound of laughter and music, of buses and cars. They may be anonymous, they may be forgotten, but somehow they’re still part of life. I like that. My mother would have liked that.

Us human beings are on this world for a very short time, and if we’re going to be honest, very few of us leave a legacy behind. Most of us are born, live and die in obscurity—which does not mean we don’t live life in full. It just means we’re like most people: too unimportant in the overall context of things, no matter how important we are to those that love us and are loved by us.

As we wander through old churchyards we may think all those who died in the past ended up with an engraved stone commemorating their existence. That is not true. Only those who could afford a mason could commission a headstone, and that means many, many people ended up in unmarked graves. In times of epidemics, war and disaster, people were buried in mass graves. No one carved their names on a headstone. They were simply gone.

Obviously, for those most affected by a death there is no need of a headstone to keep the memory alive. Children remember their parents for most of their lives, Grandchildren may remember their grandparents, but go one generation further down the line and there are no memories. There may be stories, little anecdotes shared from one generation to the other, but these are not necessarily representative of the person in question. It’s a bit like with history in general. We study the information that comes down to us and try to build a cohesive picture of the man/woman who lived ages ago based on entries in rolls and charters. However, what we get are details—not necessarily the truly important details—round which we try to recreate what that person might have been like.

mamma simone-martini-angel-gabriel_u-l-o2ohx0It is difficult to lose someone close to you. Losing a parent brings home that there is no IF about death, it is only a WHEN. Yes, we know that rationally, but we don’t feel it until it actually happens. With my mother’s passing, I am the eldest person in my original family. Reasonably, that makes me next in line. Not an entirely pleasant thought.

What is also difficult is handling the cocktail of emotions. It is especially difficult when the presumption is that as a daughter and a mother, my mother and I were very close and loving. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my mother and I am sure she loved me. But that does not mean the relationship was an easy one. In fact, for most of my adult life I have lived under a burden of expectations I have never quite lived up to, and that is very draining.

We are all a product of our lives and my mother was no exception. From the horizon of a fifty-plus woman, I can understand why she was as demanding as she was, her constant need for affirmation and attention a consequence of a difficult adolescence. I can understand that now, but I couldn’t quite understand it as a young woman when I mostly felt that no matter what I did, my mother was not entirely happy with me. She felt alone and abandoned. I juggled four children, a full-time job and a home, and still invited her over for dinner every weekend. But she was lonely all the other days as well and I went about with a constant burden of guilt.

Guilt is an interesting emotion. It steals so much energy that somewhere along the line it starts morphing into resentment. Years and years of not being quite good enough led to a certain distancing—it had to, as it hurt too much at times to be accused of being self-centred, of never having time for my mother, the person I owed everything to as she had given birth to me.

My mother’s last few years were bad years. She suffered from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and this is a cruel, cruel condition, leaving the afflicted constantly short of breath, constantly in a state of air-anxiety. Every breath is a conscious effort, every movement is a challenge. We did what we could. We tried to show her that we loved and cared—because we did, of course we did.

We wished she would let go, because with each day her suffering increased, but my mother was not a quitter. She clung to life with everything she had. She loved life, was worried that the alternative wouldn’t be much fun. So she fought tooth and nail to stay alive, she breathed and breathed and breathed, she looked at us with panic in her eyes and breathed some more.

Talking to her about death and an eventual afterlife was not an option at this stage. She was too scared, too angry. And yes, she took it out on us—as we all take things out on those we trust the most.

It was almost—no, I must rephrase—it was a relief when the doctors concluded there was nothing more to be done for our mother. Instead, she was transferred to palliative care.
“What do you think your mother would say if we asked her what she wants?” the doctor asked me.
“My mother?” I shrugged. “She wants to live. Don’t we all?”
“Her body doesn’t. Not anymore,” the doctor said. And as our mother was no longer all there, the doctor made the decision to stop with all invasive treatments and instead to help her die with dignity.

My mother died at home. She died wearing her favourite nightdress, lying in her own sheets with her favourite painting on the wall in front of her. For the last four days of her life there was no pain, no air-anxiety. There was only peace—and resignation. I believe she died feeling safe. I hope she felt she was being called home and that in those last moments she could give thanks for a long and fulfilling life.

mamma b79e66fca0cf0d38dbbe12df843a2e40Now my mother lies in an anonymous grove. In summer, the wind soughs through the trees, through the flowering shrubs. In winter, frost crackles in the grass and in the deep, deep winter night, the stars are like miniature diamonds in the distant sky. Where she is right now, I do not know. I hope she is at peace and that if there is an afterlife, she has run effortlessly through the rolling pastures into the arms of her waiting man.

A Toast to St Sylvester

Today is New Year’s Eve. Most of us perceive this as a very secular holiday, best celebrated by drinking champagne, going a tad maudlin while singing Auld Lang Syne, and cheering madly as the sky lights up with fireworks just as the clock strikes midnight.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 31st is a relatively modern invention. Okay, okay, maybe that should be re-invention as already the old Romans considered January 1st as the first day in a new year. However, what the Romans thought was mostly forgotten by medieval times, and accordingly New Year tended to vary. In most European countries, March 25th was celebrated as the New Year, usually through religious processions in honour of the Virgin who was visited by the archangel Gabriel on this date & told she was to give birth to God’s son in nine months. Was she thrilled at the thought? Scared stiff? Probably the latter, I suspect. God gave this young woman quite the burden to carry…

Back to New Year: Other than March 25th, there were some countries that felt March 20th was a better option. Or Easter (which was a bit of a challenge, seeing as Easter is a moveable feast). Anglo-Saxon England leaned towards December 25th. In brief, there was little consensus in this matter, but whatever the opinions might have been about the New Year, most Christian countries celebrated December 31st anyway. Why? Because it was the feast of St Sylvester.

I bet most of you haven’t heard of St Sylvester. As a child, I lived in Colombia where very many people referred to New Year’s Eve as “San Silvestre”. There was also a tradition of cracking an egg in a glass of water and analysing the resulting pattern to see what sort of year next year would be. This had nothing to do with Sylvester – I suspect the gent in question would have frowned on such superstitious practises – but it was quite fun, as was the tradition to eat exactly twelve grapes at midnight unless you wanted to end up all unloved in the New Year.

Sylvester Stanze_Vaticane_-_Raffaello_-_Apparizione_della_croce

Constantine & the cross (Raphael’s studio)

So who was this Sylvester, you may ask. Well, the man in question was a pope—and a saint. He became pope first, and sat in St Peter’s chair for a couple of decades in the fourth century. He was a contemporary of Constantine (you know, the Roman Emperor who saw a blazing cross in the sky with the flaming Greek words Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα which translated to Latin meant In Hoc Signo Vinces or In This Sign Thou Shalt Conquer, thereby convincing Constantine it was about time he embraced the Christian faith. Whether this is true or not, I leave up to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself. Let’s just say that an alternative – and more credible – version has it that Constantine didn’t convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed)

At the time, temporal power was very much the top dog. The Roman Emperor may have chosen to convert to Christianity, but as far as he was concerned, he had more clout than the pope. Full stop. Until dear Sylvester, popes tended to be of the same opinion: power belonged to the emperor, conscience and spiritual supremacy to the pope.

If we’re going to be quite honest, we don’t really know much about Sylvester. Yes, we know that he lived through Diocletian’s horrific persecution of the Christians, we know he was elected pope in 314, we know he didn’t participate at the Council of Nicea but approved the various decisions taken there. But no matter who Sylvester really was, it’s the legend surrounding him that permanently shifted the balance of power. You see, some centuries after his death, Sylvester became the poster boy for the all-powerful church. All-powerful as in “if you don’t behave, you’ll have to come crawling to Canossa and beg the Holy Father for forgiveness”. (Curious about Canossa? Look up Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century)

Now we don’t know what sort of relationship Constantine and Sylvester had. Did they chit-chat over a game of chess? Did the pope and the emperor spend quality time together while considering just how to divvy up the power between them? Hmm. I suspect they moved in different circles, one of them constantly defending his empire, the other slowly but safely expanding the influence of the church.

Sylvester_I_and_Constantine

Sylvester & Constantine

Whatever the case, by the early sixth century a legend was spreading whereby Sylvester cured Constantine of leprosy using baptismal waters. Some variants have Constantine asking Sylvester to approve him taking a second wife. Sylvester said “no way” and as Constantine insisted on doing as he pleased, God decide to teach him a lesson, ergo the leprosy. No matter the reason behind his affliction, Constantine was appropriately grateful and to really show the world just how grateful, he acted the pope’s groom, walking beside the mounted pope while leading the papal horse. Constantine went one step further, proclaiming to the world that Sylvester as the pope was primus inter pares among the various leaders of the early Christian church. Probably didn’t go down well with the Patriarch. It is also highly unlikely that Constantine did this—it all smells of propaganda, even more so when one considers it was written centuries after both Sylvester’s and Constantine’s deaths.

The purpose of the above legend, described in the Vita Beati Silvestri—and of the eighth century Donation of Constantine, which promoted itself as being the true story of Constantine’s conversion—was to validate the papal push for supreme power led by a gent named Gelasius, elected pope around 496 AD. Gelasius was of the firm opinion that he, as pope, was king of the heap, while all the various emperors and kings of the time were not. After all, God had appointed the pope (somewhat indirectly, but still) while secular rulers relied on bloodlines or the power of their sword to get them to where they wanted to be.

Undoubtedly, the pope had a lot of power during the medieval period—especially prior to the papacy being moved to Avignon, when effectively the pope became dependent on the French kings, something peeps like Philippe IV of France were glad to use to their own advantage. After all, a pope blessed William the Conqueror’s attack on England. A pope had Fredrik Barbarossa crawling on his hands and knees. A pope called for the crusades. A pope could give and withhold dispensations to wed. It was a pope who divided up the world between Spain and Portugal in the so-called treaty of Tordesillas (the self-same pope that fathered a number of children, kept one of the most beautiful women around as his mistress and in general believed in sucking the marrow out of life as our time on earth is short and God alone knows what happens after death. I think Constantine would have liked this pragmatic and venal pope)

sylvesterdragon

Sylvester, killing a dragon

In the times of Sylvester, popes led a somewhat more retiring existence. But our man of the day is remembered as being the first link in the papal chain that would eventually exert enormous influence—and power—in Medieval Europe.

Personally, I won’t be thinking all that much about Sylvester tonight. I will be thinking of the year that went and the year to come. I will think of the people I love, the people I’ve lost. I will toast in champagne hoping that 2018 will be a better year for our world than 2017 was. And to you, my dear readers, here’s a heartfelt wish that 2018 will be a good year for you, a year where someone will give you a hand when you need it, cheer you on when you surge ahead. But hey, whatever you do, don’t forget to eat those twelve grapes at midnight. After all, a year without love would be a very, very dreary year!

Happy Christmas!

jul medieval_christmas

In difference to preceding generations, we live in the age of globalisation. Most of us have gadgets in our homes produced on the other side of the world, we wear clothes made in India or Bangladesh, we eat fruit and vegetable and fish that has been transported from very, very far away. That’s how we can eat tomatoes in winter, avocado all year round and munch our way through a bowl of scampi.

Globalisation also impacts our cultures. I recall the first time I travelled to China on business. The adverts that stared down at me from various billboards promoted stuff I’d never heard of before. (And in Chinese characters, which sort of added to the exoticism) Western food chain eateries were few on the ground and the music blaring from the radio was in Chinese, however modern the beat.

Some years later, and the adverts were for Gillette, McDonald’s, KFC, BMW. The music playing on the radio was no longer exclusively Chinese. In fact, most of it was in English. Not necessarily a bad thing, but how does this affect the local culture? Actually, how does it affect culture, full stop?

Sometimes, I fear we’re mistaking consumerism for culture. Take Valentine’s Day, until recently not much of a thing in Europe. Now we are bombarded with adverts suggesting we buy gifts and flowers and chocolate (yes please) for our loved ones on February 14. But in those countries where Valentine’s is an imported holiday there are no cultural roots to link all these gifts to, no traditions of homemade Valentine cards to somehow mitigate the “buy, buy, buy her stuff if you love her” message.

In Sweden, we’ve seen an upsurge in Halloween celebrations in the last decade. We’ve never celebrated Halloween. We’ve celebrated All Saints, a religious holiday when we’ve visited the graves of our dead and lit a candle for them. These days, we don’t do that anymore. We carve pumpkins into toothy grins and embrace artificial spiderwebs (and spiders), decorating our homes in orange and black. Not because it is part of our cultural identity, but because it is part of the new “global” culture, disseminated through various shows/movies & social media and eagerly spurred on by all those who make money on selling us yet another celebration.

These days, we even have a major Black Friday craze here in Europe. Not because we’ve suddenly started celebrating Thanksgiving, but because the commercial powers that are recognise yet another opportunity to make money. And we, dumb consumers that we are, fall for all those special offers, buying stuff we probably don’t need or much want. Most of us have too much stuff and too little content in our lives.

jul 640px-Giorgione_014_crop

Tomorrow it is Christmas Eve, and for the last four weeks or so, we’ve been in the grip of Christmas shopping. From every store blares Christmas music, most of it of the Anglo-Saxon kind. Very little of it is traditional – rarely does one hear Oh Come All ye Faithful, while José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad seems to be on constant repeat. I suspect up-beat music stresses us into buying more stuff, the spiritual message of Christmas (God sending us his Son to deliver us all from evil) submerged by the “All I Want for Christmas” varieties which focuses on the presents. As I write this, the television in the background is informing me I can still buy my Christmas presents—at a bargain price, as this particular store has already started its After Xmas sale. (Most illogical: if it is an After Xmas sale, then how can it start before Christmas?)

It seems to me we’ve lost our way, somehow. For me, the weeks before Christmas should be about lighting candles to brighten the winter gloom while preparing for those few days when our family is reunited. Do I buy presents? Of course I do. But they’re not central to my Christmas and I rarely have a wish-list of my own. After all, I don’t need more things.

For me, the high point of our Christmas celebration is early on the morning of December 24 (In Sweden, Christmas Eve is the thing) All our children lie sleeping and hubby and I tip-toe around, lighting candles and preparing hot cocoa. We whip cream to go with the cocoa, heat the mandatory saffron buns and then, once we’re done, we crank up the volume so that the whole house echoes with “Hosanna, David’s son, blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord” (One of my favourite X-mas psalms). One by one, our children emerge, sleepy-eyed and tousled. And while they are all taller than me, all of them adults, in that precise moment they are all still my babies, for all that they have to bend down for me to kiss them Happy Christmas.

jul Carl_Larsson_Brita_as_IdunaI hope you all have someone to kiss this Christmas. I hope there are moments when you sit in the glow of candles and enjoy the peace and quiet of the winter night, a little bubble of golden light in a world that sometimes feels very scary and dark. With that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Or just Happy Holidays and a fabulous New Year. And when life gets confusing and difficult, may you all have a star to guide you, a little beacon to light your way!

A reflection on moving, books and the digital age

We have recently moved. An exhausting experience which not only involves a lot of packing and unpacking, but also a lot of vacuuming, of running about like a headless chicken while wondering in which box you’ve packed the very important screwdriver without which you cannot reassemble the bed.

These days, most of us move several times over our lives. We may think that in this we are different from our forebears, but we’re not. While we have a preconceived idea that our ancestors were born, lived and died in the same place, the truth is that those with land—however little—probably stayed put, while the great majority (because let’s face it, the great majority has rarely been landed. Rather the reverse…) have moved due to work or a desire to better themselves. The ambition to make something more of ourselves, to leave our children slightly better off than we are, has been a driving force throughout the history of humanity and accordingly younger sons, excess daughters, unmarried sisters would have packed what little they had, waved bye-bye to their family and made for that constant lure: the city.

medieval-merchant-guild“Ha,” some of you may say, “that didn’t work if you were a villein, tied to the manor at which you were born.”
True enough: but medieval villeins had ambitious children too, or became disgruntled with their restricted life and many villeins escaped their servitude and made for the..taa-daa…big city. Once in a city, a villein who managed to avoid his master’s search parties for a year could claim his/her liberty.

Leap some centuries forward in time and in 1620 a group of very audacious people took this moving concept to a new level by setting off on the Mayflower to found a colony in the New World. Okay, so this was a novel concept from an English perspective. The Spanish would at most have raised an eyebrow, seeing as the more entrepreneurial among the sons of Spain had been crossing the Atlantic for some generations by then.

Those travelling on the Mayflower were not the first English people to set off to settle virgin North American territory. Since some decades back, Jamestown in Virginia was a (not so) flowering colony, afflicted by starvation, tense relations with the native tribes and an exuberant nature that just was too much at times. Plus there was a chronic woman shortage which further affected the general mood of the colony.

MayflowerHarbor
Further north, our intrepid Mayflower travellers came with wife et al, and I can but express my admiration for these women who left everything they knew to cross an unknown sea and land in an unknown world and somehow feel responsible for ensuring their babies (and hubby) would survive in this unfamiliar environment. They probably had more to worry about than where the dratted screwdriver might be hiding – leaving aside the fact that they’d never even heard of a screwdriver.

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Leaving it all behind…

That first trickle of colonists was to have many, many followers. Initially, those who took the giant step to leave everything they knew behind often did it for religious reasons. Being a Puritan in the first few decades of the 17th century wasn’t easy, ergo the trip over the ocean. Some decades later, those seeking a safe harbour would be Catholics escaping persecution in England by moving to Maryland. Over time, the majority of those braving the seas for a new life in an unknown world mostly came for economic reasons—like those escaped villeins who made it to the big city. Or because they needed to reinvent themselves.

Compared to the moves described above, ours is a pathetic little thing. We move from one flat to the other, at most a distance of three kilometres. I’ve not had to take traumatic farewells of people I will never see again, I am not facing an uncertain future. What I am facing, however, is an identity crisis. Why, you might ask. Dear reader, bear with me.

Of our total 32 boxes or so, 19 contained my books. (Hubby’s books have long since been relegated to the country house as “light reading matter”) I love my books. I’ve carried many of them with me for years and years and years and would no more part from them than chop off a toe. For me, putting my books back on their shelves is when the hitherto somewhat impersonal space becomes my space.

So this past weekend I started my book ritual. Many very well-loved tomes were carefully handled and placed on their shelves. I was distracted by the odd book that fell open to reveal a dog-ear or a little scrap of paper with faded scribblings I could scarcely decipher. I was happy in my book bubble, now and then breaking off to take a sip or two of my tea. And then I was finished and took a step back to admire my handiwork. Very nice. But it didn’t feel like it used to. Hmm.

Reader Fragonard,_The_ReaderIt took me some time to realise what was wrong. I am the victim of the digital age, people. You see, all those very loved books on my shelves, they are, with some exceptions, dated. Not dated in themselves, but dated in my reading experience. Since some years back, I read like 80% of all my books on my Kindle, and while there is space for my Kindle on my bookshelves there is no purpose in putting it up there, is there? Accordingly, my bookshelf no longer gives an accurate reflection of my present reading tastes.

“This is no longer me,” I said to hubby. Exaggeration: those books are a huge part of my reading persona, but they no longer reflect all of me.
“Silly,” hubby said, “you’re not a person who defines yourself by what you have on your bookshelves, are you?”
Err… I’ve spent quite some time thinking about this, and I am now worried that not only don’t my shelves give a correct representation of what I read and enjoy, but even worse: I may be holding on to my book babies out of some sort of intellectual snobbism. “Therese Raquin? Oh yes, I have it somewhere. Ah, Madame Bovary? Yes, my mother gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. No, I never enjoyed 1984, but there’s a very well-read copy of Animal Farm somewhere.”
Agh!
“A snob?” Hubby laughs and pulls out some of my books, of the very non-intellectual (but oh, so enjoyable) kind. “I think not. Now, run along and do something about the unpacked boxes in the kitchen.”

On a more serious note, I have always been the kind of person who has gravitated to other people’s bookcases, seeing in their reading matter a window into their souls. Come to think of it, the same applied to flipping through a person’s music collection. These days, music is on Spotify and books are on Kindle or the like. Oddly enough, this means that in some aspects we have become more private versus our friends while baring ourselves entirely before those who provide our selected reading, viewing and listening matter digitally. Food for thought, hey?

Reminiscing in the Tower

When I was a child, I lived in South America. I attended an English school, learnt to read and write in English, sang English songs and studied English history. In third grade, I had a teacher named Mrs Miller who was charged with teaching us about The Hundred Years’ War as well as with starting us in French. Mrs Miller was also in charge of the dreaded deportment classes, where tomboys like me barely scraped through. To this day, I still don’t know why it was so important for me to learn how to make roses out of crepe paper, or why it was imperative for a young girl to walk about with books on her head, sit down & stand up with those books on her head. On the other hand, I never slouch, so maybe…

Don’t get me wrong: there was plenty of Latin America in my life as well, all the way from TV shows such as Topo Gigio, Esmeralda and Papá Corazón (aaah) to salsa and cumbia and frijoles con arroz, empanadas and arepas.  But mostly it was school and Mrs Miller, to be followed by Mr Carey and Mr Wilmshurst – teachers I will never forget. I really wanted to be English—or at least British. I wanted to go to boarding school in England (too much Mallory Towers), I wanted to be part of a nation that had brought forth such men as Harold Godwinson, Richard I, Edward I and Edward III. I had a serious crush on all four of them, but I wanted to marry Henry Grosmont, the Duke of Lancaster. Unfortunately, he was very dead. In fact, all my heroes were very, very dead.

These days, I realise it was history I was falling in love with—more specifically, British history. Since then, I’ve gone on to discover the deliciously spicy history of present day Spain, of France under the Capets, of my own country Sweden. But my first love is, and will always be, British history up to 1690 or so.

My parents weren’t all that much into history, but when I was twelve, my father took me to London via Casablanca. Just him and me for a week—a most unusual occurrence. And while we were in London, we went to the Tower of London. It was love at first sight, even if I was very disappointed at discovering there no longer was a lion pit.

Tower princes-in-the-towerWhile not a history fan, my father was more than willing to listen to me as I told him about this king or that king. I think it was the first time I truly impressed him, and as the hours passed and we’d not got beyond the Salt Tower I was worried he’d hasten us along, but he didn’t. He asked questions, he asked for more details. He stood to the side as this very young me had an intense discussion with a Beefeater about the fate of the two little princes purportedly murdered by their uncle, Richard III. Afterwards, he told me I needed to become better at separating wishful thinking from the actual facts.

Some years later, 75% of my family moved “home” to Sweden. My mother was worried we were forgetting our Swedish roots (we probably were) and I think she’d been homesick for Sweden for years. My father remained behind in South America, promising that next year he’d come home to us. It took eighteen years before he did, and then he died a few years later, still relatively young.

For obvious reasons, my relationship with my father was never close. Too many years of only seeing him a couple of weeks a year, too many years of feeling abandoned by him. There he was in South America, here we were trying to cope in a country both my sister and I found unfamiliar and unwelcoming. (Swedish teenagers are about as warm and cuddly as teenagers everywhere…) Plus we had to cope with our mother’s obvious disillusion with the country she’d always painted as paradise on earth. Things had changed in Sweden during all those years we lived in South America, and our mother was as much of an outsider as we were.

Tower 450px-WhitetowerlondonStill, whenever I visit the Tower of London, I think of my father. I recall how he and I were chased down a street in Casablanca by people begging for Mr McQueen’s signature (he was an eerie double of Steve McQueen). I remember playing in the Caribbean surf with him, shrieking with joy as he threw me to land several metres away in the water. I remember the beautiful sword he made me, complete with a matching shield sporting Richard I’s arms. I recall those few heart-to-heart conversations we had when I was an adult, and how delighted he was by all his grandsons. All of that I remember as I stand on the old cobbles of the Tower, with ancient walls on both sides. Maybe that’s why I always go there whenever I’m in London, wishing to recapture that perfect day I spent here with my father, so very many years ago.

 

Ode to the Washing Machine

laundress 709d5b99b49a630c3c221a83871d7b70Laundry days, peeps! Woo hoo, time to undress and cavort in the shallows, looking rosy and warm and quite, quite desirable. To judge from various historical depictions of young girls doing the laundry, men did find them desirable – maybe they smelled nice and clean, like.

laundress 779dca0329c893b3d2152023d21a8a39Despite all these depictions of blushing laundresses, doing the laundry was no fun. It was hard, hard work involving a lot of water and stinging lye soap. Obviously, the well-to-do did not do their own laundry. They paid someone else to do it for them, and usually these someone elses were women, engaged in one of the few occupations that women have always been allowed to do to earn their living. I’d hazard doing laundry is almost as ancient a profession as whoring, and at times the clients had a tendency of mixing up these two trades, so that young and pretty laundry maids could find themselves in compromising situations.

Laundresses laundry-1_tc3b6pffer_-_washerwomen_in_a_grottoAnyway: the thing about laundry back then (which is not that long ago, a hundred years, give or take) was that it took time – and a lot of muscle. Usually, households saved up their laundry. In cold countries such as Sweden, washing anything but the absolute necessities was difficult during winter when lakes and rivers froze. Accordingly, no sooner was the blackbird warbling in the shrubs but all the dirty laundry that had been stockpiled over winter was dragged out of wherever it was kept and set to soak. In some cases, it was soaked in urine as this helped bleach yellowing and greying linen.

The soaking stage was called “bucking” and would take at least one full day. In some places, the linen was first soaked in water (or urine), then in a mixture of lye and water, then in water again before being transferred to the next stage. This is when our pretty laundresses had to start working those arms of theirs. Usually, the soaked linen was scrubbed with lye soap, both on the outside and the inside. Wham, wham, wham went the washing bats, ensuring a good work out of the biceps in at least one arm.

Laundress 1200px-Jean-Baptiste_Greuze_(French_-_The_Laundress_(La_Blanchisseuse)_-_Google_Art_ProjectOnce scrubbed, beaten, scrubbed and beaten some more, the garments were boiled. This took some time and involved a lot of heavy stirring. By now, of course, the arms and backs of our laundresses were beginning to ache – a lot. (And speaking from my own experience, it is hard work to boil f.ex. sheets) Once the garments had been boiled for long enough, they were lifted out of the cauldron, the released steam causing the hair of all those little laundresses to curl most enticingly. (In the pictures. In reality, it covered their faces with a sweaty sheen, dampened the clouts with which they covered their hair and had their clothes sticking most uncomfortably to their skin.)

laundresses 1340358820_image001The steaming laundry was then rinsed. Quite often, this was done in the closest river. Up here in the north, this meant the water was horribly cold, and as each garment had to be thoroughly rinsed, the laundresses ended up with numbed and chapped hands. Very chapped. Rarely shows up in all those paintings…

It wasn’t only the cold water that caused discomfort. Burns were common while tending to the cauldron, and then, of course, there was the lye. The correct name for lye is sodium hydroxide – it suffices to hear that name to understand lye is a) complicated stuff from a chemical perspective b) potentially dangerous. Spilled lye caused burns – very painful ones. Should you be unlucky and get it in your eyes, chances were you’d end up blind. Should you be even more unlucky and sort of end up falling over into the lye container, you’d likely die. (And for a graphic description of just what can happen with lye, I recommend Dina’s Book by Herbjörg Wassmo. 19th century Gothic drama set in Norway…)

Laundress e1a99e86901a14a28bc2bebfdf0cc352--th-century-oil-on-canvasAnyway: assuming our laundresses had survived the lye and the water, had avoided falling into the river to drown, at the end of a long, long day they had heaps and heaps of clean linen to hang on lines or spread on shrubs or on the grass to dry. And as I am of the firm opinion we have more in common with our ancestors than we think, I bet those distant laundresses did what I do as they folded the sheets: they sniffed them, smiling at how they smelled of sun and wind and rustling grass. Or maybe they were just too tired to do so. I hope not.

I suppose that what this post brings home is just how lucky we are to live in a day and age where the washing process consists of sorting clothes, stuffing them in the washing machine, adding detergent, selecting a programme and pressing ON. We don’t have to carry bucket after bucket of water to fill the cauldron. We don’t have to stand with our arms in urine as we stir the soaking linen. We don’t have to make lye, we don’t have to whack the washing, scrub it, scrub it some more. No boiling, no endless rinsing in icy water. No crying at the end of the day because our nails are blue and ache so, so much.

laundresses arkhipov-the-laundresses-c1900Once the laundry was done, our weary laundresses had other chores to do. Cows had to be milked, food had to be cooked, bread had to be baked, clothes had to be mended. For those with a fancy streak, all that newly washed linen also had to be ironed, collars and cuffs starched into perfection. A lot of hard work was involved in keeping your clothes clean, so maybe it’s no wonder people wore their garments for as long as they could before adding them to the “to wash” pile. Especially if you were a woman…

These days, we change clothes on a daily basis. Where our grandmothers aired their clothes, gave them a good brush-down and then wore them for some days more, we wrinkle our nose at the thought of well-worn clothes (with the exception of jeans. Maybe) We have the luxury to do so, thanks to that wonderful, wonderful invention, the washing machine. To paraphrase Maurice Chevalier: “Thank heavens for washing machines, without them what would modern peeps do?”  

Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite?

Chatterton 1856 by Henry Wallis 1830-1916There is this rather romanticised (and antiquated) idea that great art is created by young (mostly) male wannabees who laugh cruel fate in the face while they continue with their creative endeavours, no matter chillblains and empty stomachs, ice-cold draughts and ragged clothes. Our literary hero hoards his candle stumps so as to light his nightly progress with his roman à clef,  but no sooner does dawn tinge the night skies pink but he blows out the little flame, preferring to strain his eyesight to wasting any more of his artificial light source.

Such young men write about PAIN. They write about anguish and despair, about setting off to brave the world alone. Their world is harsh, their female protagonists are generally peripheral, and all that introverted focus results in a rather heavy read – which is why said writer is languishing in a garret to begin with. Now, not all garret-bound writers have written unreadable books. In Sweden, we have our own most brilliant if somewhat depressive and misogynist August Strindberg, who rose from humble beginnings to become a writer of quite some well-deserved renown (and doubtful repute, what with all his women). Great art has undoubtedly arisen from strained circumstances, but is it a necessity to suffer to write/compose/paint masterpieces? No, I would say – rather emphatically. What is required to create masterpieces is talent, perseverance and inspiration.

Irises-Vincent_van_GoghCreating masterpieces does not always result in monetary compensation. Take Van Gogh, for example. Did he ever enjoy the monetary fruits of his labour? Nope. His painting of irises may be one of the more highly valued works of arts in the world, but dear old Vincent spent his latter years in mental confusion (hence the ear business, one assumes) and does not seem to have reaped much material reward, despite increasing recognition of his genius towards the latter years of his (short) life.

Also, there’s the interesting little fact that masterpieces are generally defined by a selected few – an intellectual elite, if you will – and may therefore not necessarily reflect the tastes of the broad masses – and if you want to become rich through your creative efforts, then you had better appeal to the masses. To be brief, one can conclude that while writing masterpieces does not exclude material success, neither does it guarantee the writer will be rolling in money. If you write to earn your living, there may therefore be a need of a certain level of… umm… well, what can we call it? “Prostitution”? (Oh dear; hearts go all a-flutter, don’t they?)

aston_martin_db9-pic-12758Writers who are looking for high level income should choose genre carefully. Crime is a safe bet. Silent male hunk (think Reacher) driven by an inner moral compass but uninterested in cluttering up his life with emotional baggage as he goes about saving the world always seems to sell – mostly to men, who probably nourish a dream of living the simple life and being heroes at least once in their lives. Another safe bet is romance – but here the sub-genres are a veritable tangle to work your way through, and some are more successful than others, so do the research before deciding on whether your male protagonists will prance about in silk hose and breeches, a painted mouche on their cheek and a powdered wig atop their head, or slouch about looking delightful in an Aston Martin DB9 and cashmere (Aaaaaaahhhh, yes…)

The alternative to prostitution – a.k.a. writing what you think the market may want –  is to write what you feel passionate about and to hell with remuneration. In my experience, this leads to much better writing. Much. Okay, so there may only be a minority of people around who want to read about the Sherpa who got on the wrong bus and ended up in Zanzibar (and boy, was that a happy Sherpa: not a freezing mountain in sight to climb, just beautiful pristine beaches and a nice warm climate) but that minority will – hopefully – become your fans. Which is why, of course, I write about love and history, and time travelling and love and the 17th century and love and medieval rebellions and love and religious controversy and … Did I mention love?

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterThese days, writing is no longer done on paper with ink that leaves ugly blots, those manuscripts pages then rushed off to be typeset. No, dear people, these days writing is done on computers.Yes, yes; some of us draft – or even write – using pen and paper, but ultimately authors these days will keyboard their characters, their plot and setting, into a precious .docx file that exists in multiple back-ups. (WHAT? You have no back-ups????? Well, you clearly like living on the edge, don’t you?) And once the file is on the computer, it is quite easy to publish it without having to do the agent/publishing house thing – you can do it all on your own. (Luckily, as otherwise those people who really, really want to read about the Sherpa and Zanzibar would never get the opportunity as the target reader group is ridiculously small)

The classic business model regarding books for the latest decades has included the author, the agent and the publisher. Any profit made would be shared by the three interested parties, and so long as the publishing companies controlled what was being published, things worked out pretty well. After all, until recently, if you wanted to read a book you needed to buy the physical printed product, and as long as the publishing houses ensured the market wasn’t flooded by too many books in the same genre, readers would browse what was available and buy, thereby guaranteeing higher sales per title, ergo nice, steady profits. Enter the age of digital publishing. Enter the age of Amazon. (I feel a sudden urge to sing here: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” Chorus: “This is the dawning of the age of Aaaamazon, the age of Aaaaamazon, Aaaamazon“)

behemotYes, Amazon is a behemoth that is causing rampant death among many smaller and larger booksellers. Yes, Amazon has reinvented the book industry. Yes, Amazon drives e-book sales. Yes, Amazon has created space (he-he) for unpublished authors to go for it. Yes, Amazon is doing all this for profit. No, Amazon won’t go away – and neither will Smashwords or Kobo or all other similar on-line retailers. Or e-books. Why? Because for the reader, Amazon offers a cheap and accessible service, with the added benefit of e-books being far more environmentally friendly than the printed book.

As a consequence, the traditional business model within the book publishing world is under pressure. This leads to publishing houses having to become more restrictive regarding what they publish. Guaranteed sales need to be relatively high for the company to recoup on its investments. Sales of 10 000 copies will generate approximately 20 – 30 thousand pounds in gross profit, but this is before any promotional costs, any salaries to the people involved in the production as such (you know; editors, jacket designer, proof-readers – plus the overheads, such as the cleaners and the managers and the accountants and the sales reps and…) The book sells 5 000, and the gross taking is roughly 10 – 12 thousand pounds, which doesn’t leave much of a profit – if any –  once all expenses incurred have been deducted. It’s a tough world, the book business – almost as tough as life was back then, in that freezing garret room, where the only source of light and heat was a fluttering candle.

When the basic tenets of an industry change, this creates opportunities for new players. Enter the quality-minded, professional small publishing companies that cater to all those authors who no longer have a chance in hell of getting a contract with one of the traditional publishing companies – not because their book is bad, but because they’re not celebrities, or well-known authors that have an established fan base, or have a book that hits a trending sweet-spot. Or are immensely talented.

So, the enthusiastic as yet unknown author wants to publish, the small publishing house offers a package for self-publication and you have a marriage made in heaven. (A word of warning: double check the publishing house before going with them. You want someone who is serious about what they do)  End result of this matrimony = a book, a lovely, lovely book that has the writer smiling like an idiot while he/she strokes the cover (been there, done that). But is it a quality product? Aha! Key question, ladies and gentlemen, best replied by “Judge not a book by its cover“, because no matter how pretty the cover, it’s the content that matters, right?

for-your-eyes-only-stampIf you write for your own pleasure, you don’t need to worry about edits and formatting, about odd POV shifts, about excessive usage of adverbs. You’re doing if For Your Eyes Only, and so it can be just as unfinished as you let it be. But. Major, major but. You put it out there as a book you expect people to buy, well then you owe all those people a certain basic quality. Formatting is nice, for example. Correct spelling helps ( “You now it’s true!” she said. Err… ). Consistent use of verb tense, of names, of dates – all of this is a minimum. I recently read a book where the protagonist is eighteen on one page, twenty-six three chapters later when two years have passed, and in actual fact he must be sixteen as we are told he is ten years younger than another twenty-six-year-old. Very confusing, let me tell you –  and far from a quality product.

This, I believe, is the rub in the entire self-publishing debate. Too many books are published at a deplorable standard, and IMO it is the company facilitating the publication services that somehow must take a stance here. All books do not appeal to all readers – and that’s okay. Personally, I’d hate reading a book about a Sherpa that ended up in Zanzibar (I think; maybe if Stephen Fry wrote it I might reconsider). But as long as the book lives up to a basic standard, I won’t feel shortchanged if I buy it and then simply don’t like it.  So, dear wannabe writers, do yourself – and your future readers – a favour. Hire an editor. Please. Pretty, pretty please? And as to all those publishing houses that cater to the self-publishing industry (including dear, huge Amazon), how about making editing a prerequisite, huh?

paris-charity-in-a-garret-grangerIf we float back in time to that chilly garret (in Paris, of course it’s in Paris, and Rodolfo is holding Mimi’s cold hand while singing his heart out to her, and…oops, sorry, slipped away there) with our industrious author, we will find the floor around his chair littered with pages, pages where words have been scratched out – whole sentences even. Mr long-suffering author is in the editing phase, and because he is dirt poor and convinced he is the best writer since Molière, he scoffs when his timid muse suggests he let someone else take a look at his finished opus. Grammar, he says in a patronising tone, is for lesser writers than he. He is an artiste, a creator of masterpieces, not for him the ridiculous rules of syntax and spelling. No wonder he’s still stuck in that garret of his, cursing the world for not seeing the beauty of his text.

In conclusion, dear people, writers don’t need garrets. But they do need editors – and readers. And books, they need publishing houses that take the craft of writing seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they won’t set their name to a book (self-published or otherwise) unless it meets a certain standard. Like an ISO 9001 approval, but for books. Can’t be that difficult to put in place, can it? Hello? Mr Bezoz? Did you hear that?

Oh, and if someone feels like developing my Sherpa/ Zanzibar story, I do have a rough outline lying about (you call, Mr Fry, and I’ll come running).

 

 

 

Saving summer in a bottle

midsommar 7409078390_6d0280973b_bToday, Sweden celebrates Midsummer’s Eve. (Being a pragmatic people, we decided quite some years ago to always celebrate Midsummer on a Friday, no matter when the solstice actually happens) All over Sweden, people will be gearing up for one of our favourite holidays, albeit that very often the hoped for sunny weather doesn’t make an appearance. After all, if you’re going to spend the whole day, the whole evening and the whole night (if you’re young, horny and lucky) outside, then it’s much better if it’s warm and dry rather than damp and cold. Fortunately, us Swedes are a hardy lot: we put on an extra layer and dance round the maypole no matter the weather.

Some years ago, it was colder on Midsummer’s Eve than it had been on New Year’s Eve. That was a bummer. As was the year when it snowed on Midsummer. Thing is, even if the sun is shining, many of the outside bits look better on photo and movies than they are in reality. Take that scene in from Here to Eternity where Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster frolic in the surf, well all I can say is Ha! You do that and you end up with sand everywhere. Everywhere.

However, to sit outside on this the year’s longest day is magical. Come evening, we’ll wrap ourselves in blankets – more for the mosquitoes than the cold – and settle down to watch as the day wanes. The sun touches the woods on the opposite shore well past nine, and around ten or so the pink of sunset begins to streak the sky. It never gets fully dark. Instead, the day sinks into a purple dusk, rests there for awhile before rising to the brilliance of a summer dawn.

20170623_094321Many years ago, when I graduated from Junior High, we sang a song called “If I could save time in a bottle”. In retrospect, the lyrics were wasted on a group of fourteen-year-olds, too young, too convinced of their own immortality to even consider saving time. Life was there for the taking, and we didn’t want to save time, we wanted time to hurry up and speed by so that we could become proper adults and get on with life. We’d not quite grasped that life is what happens right here, right now. Only this singular moment is a certainty – yesterday is no more, and tomorrow may never come. Although, for most of us, tomorrow will come, As will the next tomorrow and the next tomorrow, and the next, until one day…Well: you get the point, right?

As I sit on my porch with the glory of summer spread out before me, I do my very best to engrave the moment in my mind, save it as a memory which I can pull out at need on a freezing cold November day – or an equally cold February day – to reassure myself that after winter comes summer. After dark, comes light. After cold, comes warmth.

Resized_20170617_133041001Sometimes, more tangible mementos are required. Which is why in my family we take the making of elderflower cordial very, very seriously. Nothing evokes summer as much as a glass or two of this fragrant beverage. A pale gold, the finished product resembles bottled sunlight, the warmth of summer trapped in a bottle.

First, we have to find the perfect corymbs. Elders have a tendency to attract lice and we definitely don’t want black specks floating around in the cordial, ergo we must be selective – and pick them early. This time round, we picked 240 corymbs.

Resized_20170617_135929For every 80 corymbs, we need two lemons, sliced in two. Plus we need water and sugar. We boil the water, add the sugar and stir until it dissolves, and pour this over the corymbs. After that, we leave it to sit in the dark for several days, stirring every 48 hours.

Resized_20170617_142238We strain it, add a preservative and bottle it. And just like that we’ve captured a little piece of summer, something to tide us over during the months of darkness.

Today, however, winter is far, far off. Today, we’ll sit in the purple dusk and watch the swifts and swallows dart back and forth. From somewhere far away comes the sound of song, of people laughing as they dance around the maypole while singing about little frogs (What can I say? Us Swedes are a strange lot) On the table stands the customary bouquet of seven different flowers, flowers tradition tells us we should take to bed and tuck under our pillow so as to dream of the man in our life. I don’t need to dream. My man is sitting right beside me, his thigh pressed against mine, my hand enclosed in his. Not a bad way to spend Midsummer’s Eve, IMO. Not bad at all.

In the name of love – not always a happy tale

Pomegranate_Tree-300x297

A pomegranate tree – a symbol of love

God, it is said, created Adam before Eve, and to keep Adam adequately occupied he was given the task of naming all the fantastic forms of life God paraded before him.
“Centipede,” Adam said, having regarded this multifooted creature for a while.
“Zebra,” he nodded (with an extended eeee sound) but was struck mute by the stately grandeur of the hairy pachyderm that looked down its very long, elongated nose at him.
“Mammoth,” Adam decided after a while.

Day after day, he sat there naming these creatures, and it struck him somewhere round day 178 that they all came in pairs. Two elephants, two lions, two penguins, two stoats but only one Adam. Which was why God brought forth Eve, and Adam took but one look and fell helplessly in love. Alternatively one could argue that if Adam wanted to procreate, there wasn’t much to choose from – same goes for Eve.
“You could try, you know,” Eve said one evening, looking Adam up and down.
“Eh?” Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm.
“A girl likes being courted,” Eve pouted. “You know, flowers, jewelry  the odd little daytrip …” Eve sighed and threw a look at the rolling green meadows of Eden, picture perfect and oh, so boring.
“Why bother?” Adam yawned. “It’s only you and me, right?”
“I could find someone else,” Eve threatened.
“Yeah, sure,” Adam laughed, “like how about setting up house with the ant-eater next door? Or hey, chat up Mr Tiger and see how far that gets you.” Adam was very amused. Eve was not, and when dusk settled like a purple velvet curtain Eve refused to snuggle up close to Adam, staring at Venus instead while humming “Love hurts“.
“Pssst! Gorgeoussssssss,” someone hissed.
Eve almost fell off her little log. “Who’s that?” she hissed back, straightening her spine somewhat.
“It’sssss me,” this hissing presence said. “You’re one ssssexy lady, ssssssweetheart.”
“You think?” Eve preened and sidled closer to the voice that seemed to be coming from a nearby tree.
Well, the rest is history as they say, with a very aggravated Adam being thrown out of paradise on account of his woman. (Or wife? Were Adam and Eve married?) I imagine there were many, many nights when Adam berated his wife for being an idiot, in response to which Eve cried that it was his fault – for not showing her he loved her.
“Love you?” Adam snorted. “What sort of romantic drivel is that?”.

If we stay with the Old Testament for a while longer, there’s the sad lovestory of Samson and Delilah. Samson was a somewhat complex character, bound by his parent’s oath as a nazarite, one of God’s chosen. God has plans for Samson, having given the young man impressive strength with which to smite the Philistines – as long as he didn’t cut his hair (Haircuts and alcoholic beverages are a major no-no for the nazarites amongst us). Anyway, Samson became a major burr on the Philistines’ nether parts, and after several failed attempts at catching him, the Philistines resorted to a ruse. Samson loved a young woman called Delilah (as deceitful then as she was when Tom Jones sang about her) and one night he finally told her it was all in his hair, whereupon she proceeded to shave his head while he slept. This was probably unrequited love from Samson’s side – Delilah seemed quite unperturbed when her man was led away and blinded. One could say that in this case, what Samson did in the name of love was sheer stupidity.

431px-Judith_mit_dem_Haupt_des_Holofernes

Kick-ass Judith (L Cranach)

Yet another woman in the Old testament, Judith, took a leaf out of Delilah’s book, seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes before chopping his head off while he slept. Okay, so she had valid reasons to do so – the Assyrians threatened to destroy her home – but yet again love was used as cunning deceit.  (One strong woman, dear old Judith; decapitating someone requires a lot of muscle) One could of course argue that this had nothing to do with love. this was lust, plain and simple, the fire raging in Holofernes’ loins when in Judith’s presence befuddling his mind to the point that he lost his head.

Helene_Paris_DavidWe fast forward a number of centuries and there we are, with Paris and Helen. The lady with the face that launched a thousand ships fell heads over heels for the Trojan prince and decided to run off with her lover thereby shaming her husband and handing the Greeks the pretext they needed to once and for all destroy Troy. Which they did with surprising efficiency, eradicating the city so completely its actual location was lost. (Until a polyglot German business man by the name of Heinrich Schliemann rediscovered it in the nineteenth century. Not a man much swayed by love, Heinrich took a pragmatic approach regarding such matters and advertised for a wife when he needed one. Different story …) Yet another lovestory that ended without a Happily Ever After. Paris died, Helen was dragged back home by hubby Menelaos, and Paris’ entire family was exterminated.

Around the times of Christ we have gorgeous Cleopatra, the lady who gave milk-baths a name, so to say. In keeping with tradition, Cleopatra was married to her younger brothers (in plural, as one died and the next one stepped into his place) But she loved elsewhere, starting with Julius Caesar. When they met, Cleopatra was young and nubile, Caesar was battle-hardened and… yup, old. But clearly vigorous enough to inspire tender feelings in his Egyptian mistress – or was that just Cleopatra pretending to keep herself and her country safe? Later on, after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra was to transfer her affections to Mark Anthony, and for a while it seemed these passionate lovers would succeed in building their own little empire. Enter capable, cool-headed Octavianus and “poof”, that little dream bubble was skewered. Mark Anthony committed suicide after suffering defeat at Octavianus’ hands, and some while later Cleopatra followed suit, as per tradition by being bitten by an asp.

Through the ages, loves and infatuations have often changed the course of history – or at least had severe impact on it. Edward II had a thing about his male favourites that undermined his standing and led to him being ousted (it may all have been platonic, we don’t know), Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn lead to a new English Church, Edward VII fell so in love with Wallis Simpson he abdicated (it’s a tad unclear if this is what Wallis wanted. Whatever the case, how can you say no to a man who has resigned a crown for your sake?). And then we have all those cases where women (okay, okay; a smattering of men as well) have risked everything – even their lives – for love.

G_M_Armfelt_color

Armfeldt

One such person is Madeleine Rudenschiöld, a Swedish lady who in the late eighteenth century fell head over heels in over with the handsome royal favourite, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. An eyeful  was Gustaf – to our modern eyes somewhat lacking in toned muscle, but all the same pleasing to look at with an absolutely magnificent head of hair.  This decorated officer and cosmopolitan Don Juan was one of the king’s confidantes and was responsible for the lavish and complicated entertainments offered at court. Pretty Madeleine was young and innocent, and taken aback by being the object of Armfeldt’s intense courtship.

A determined man, Armfeldt won Madeleine’s heart in 1785 – coincidentally the same year he married another woman – and was soon a regular visitor to Madeleine’s bed. Being a man of voracious appetites when it came to women, Armfeldt had a number of other mistresses as well, but from his correspondence and the length of their relationship, Madeleine does seem to have held a special place in his heart – as did his capable if somewhat frumpty wife (whom he rather sweetly refers to as “my pumpkin”). So far, this is nothing but a little love affair, but when Gustav III was murdered in 1792, Armfeldt’s comfortable existence at court came to an end.

Armfeldt was ousted from power, did not like it and conspired to achieve the downfall of his enemies and his reinstatement at court. Dear Madeleine helped, delivering his messages to the other men involved in the conspiracy. One day she was intercepted, the conspiracy was revealed and while Armfeldt was safe down in Italy, poor Madeleine was not, having to suffer the ultimate shame of pillory and prison for having helped her lover. She was pardoned some years later and sort of drops out of history. She seems to have spent her latter years as an unpaid housekeeper for her brother. Oh, the wages of true love!

People do stupid things for love. Some drink poison to die beside their lover, some sell everything they own to help their loved one pursue a dream. It’s easy to laugh at these gullible fools – even if most of us will twist our lips in wry recognition as we hear a husky voice sing the poignant words in one of my favourite songs, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

They asked me how I knew, my true love was true,
I of course replied, something here inside cannot be denied.
They said someday you’ll find all who love are blind.
When your heart’s on fire, you must realise, smoke gets in your eyes.”

They say it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I agree – heck, I think Cleopatra and Madeleine, Anne Boleyn and even Eve all agree as well. It is what we do in the name of love that defines us as humans, weak and fragile at times, but so resilient and brave at others. And no matter where we are in the world, to what culture we belong or what faith we call our own, there’s no denying that the greatest thrill of all is to hear someone say “I love you” . No, wait; the greatest thrill of all is to SAY “I love you” and see that special someone light up like a beacon.

Here’s to love, people. Here’s to the bubbly fizzy feeling that has you dancing on the spot, here’s to the mellow contentment of belonging together. To love – or as dear old Julius would have cooed to pretty Cleopatra, Amor Vincit Omnia. Except, of course, it doesn’t, as evidenced by Holofernes and Samson, Helena and Cleopatra. And yet…Oh,yes: and yet.

Eternity is a long, long time – but we only have now

Spending time with second son is always something of an intellectual stretch, often ending with hubby and I staring at each other and wondering where on earth second son came from. Okay, okay: we know where he came from. We even have a pretty good idea just when he was conceived, but there was no sudden burst of stars at that critical moment, nor did his birth have us breaking out in song. It’s sort of difficult to sing and push at the same time, and hubby is tone-deaf and has too much self-preservation to risk humming as I was labouring. Whatever the case, second son is something of an enigma to us – he thinks so out of the box the rest of his family have a hard time keeping up.

Eternal life P-1947-LF-77-tif-10575

Lucas Cranach, The Tree of Knowledge

Second son is also one of those people who are constantly expanding their knowledge. For a light summer read, second son chooses “The Wealth of Nations” followed by an treatise on Chinese history. He is just as happy discussing details in Roman history as he is explaining the inexplicable world of genetic algorhythms to his mother, and as he not only reads a lot, but also seems to listen to hours and hours of obscure podcasts, he can bring up the most amazing topics over tea and cake. Like immortality.

In this case, it all started with a discussion about Elon Musk and his somewhat dark view of what the advent of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) may mean for us humans. As per Musk, AI & digitalisation will lead to a huge reduction in “simple” jobs such as driving cars, lorries, buses, trains, working on production lines & whatnot, and as a consequence a lot of people will lose their income. This is a view Musk shares with many, which is why there is an increasing discussion about the need of implementing some sort of citizen’s wage. I can just imagine how difficult it will be to get such a system in place. Plus, I’m not so sure human beings benefit from passivity.

Anyway, in the midst of this debate, we ended up discussing somewhat more theoretical concepts such as artificial intelligence taking over, the challenges of living in a world where more and more people would likely make it to a hundred. This is when second son stole the last piece of cake and casually said that soon enough, eternal life would be a possibility.
“Round the corner,” he said. “It’s just a matter of locking down the way our cells replace themselves.” Fortunately, it’s not exactly round the corner. There’s a huge gap between understanding that if we can only find a way to stimulate old and tired cells to continue replacing themselves we can live for ever to actually doing it. Phew.

I’m not sure eternal life is something to aspire to. Isn’t life as precious as it is precisely because it is finite? And can you imagine the tensions it would cause in society when all these ancient peeps insisted on remaining alive, thereby shortchanging future generations? Plus any “eternity treatment” would probably be very expensive, which means it would be a person’s wealth rather than their moral attributes that would decide whether they would live forever, yes or no. In the world we presently inhabit there are quite a few very rich people with exceedingly low morals who, I believe, would be more than thrilled at extending their lifespan to the detriment of humanity in general. Not exactly a scenario I find particularly palatable.

Second son shrugged. “The technology will be there at some point. Just as we already have the technology to tamper with the DNA of unborn babies.” Yeah, we do. And it is a great thing if such technologies can be used to eradicate genetic diseases. It is not quite as good a thing if those technologies are used to “enhance” those future babies so that they all develop into tall, athletic, handsome blue-eyed and blond people. Or brown-eyed and dark haired. Second son nodded in agreement before stating that nature had a tendency to balance things out.

Banana_farm_Chinawal

Photo Rsika (Creative Commons)

“Think of the banana,” he said, and I must admit my response to that was “Eh?”
“The banana,” he repeated patiently. “It used to be all bananas more or less were of a type known as the Gros Michel, but back in the 1950s, a fungus disease wiped out all Gros Michel bananas. A major catastrophe for the banana world, the result of all those bananas sharing the same DNA. If we start tampering with human embryos so as to make them fit one mould, chances are their DNA will also be very similar, which in turn would make the population very susceptible to certain types of epidemics.”
“Ah.”
“What we need to do is understand – or at least attempt to comprehend – just how radical the possibilities offered by new technologies will be – and start thinking about legislation to ensure all this new stuff isn’t misused,” second son continued.
“Would it be misuse to pay for eternal life?” I asked, visualising a number of men (yes, mostly rich white men with a narcissistic streak) sitting around sipping at some grossly expensive elixir.
“Probably not.” Second son stretched. “But the concept of eternal life and the reality of it are two very different things. Imagine living on and on while your friends die, your family dies, the world changes and no one can anymore understand your references to the music of your youth, or the events that shaped you.” He tapped his head. “That way lies insanity.”

I am prone to agree. While we may one day be able to tamper with our bodies so as to offer an endless lifespan, I’m not so sure our mental capacities would be as adaptable. Eternity is a long, long time to spend alive. Boredom would likely set in. Severe boredom, the type that makes you depressed enough to throw yourself in front of a train or off a house. If you live long enough, likely you’ll spend most of your time considering just how to stop living.

eternity Science_fiction_quarterly_195611Very many years ago, I was a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. One of them has stayed with me through life, and is a rather short thing called The Last Answer. It tells the story of atheist Templeton who dies of a heart attack and ends up as a cognitive presence in the hereafter, his only purpose being to think thoughts that will amuse The Voice, an ancient, immensely powerful intellect that can easily think up amusing things all on his own. So goaded is Templeton by the futility of this continued existence at  The Voice’s behest that he decides to think up a way to destroy it. Which is precisely what The Voice wants him to do… (Great short story, BTW, as is the companion piece, The Last Question)

I guess Asimov and I shared a common perception as to how horrible eternal life could be…

No, no eternal life for me – at least not here on earth. I wouldn’t mind several more years, though, just as I wouldn’t mind miraculously shedding like 15 kilos, growing a couple of inches and wake up to long, thick hair the colour of a rippling rye-field. Probably won’t happen, and I’m okay with that too.

IMG_0199But when it is time for me to go, I am sure there is something on the other side. (And yes, I realise I am being inconsistent here: but this would be another life, not an ever-extended life)  I must admit to hoping for gambolling lambs and green pastures, ever-replenished teapots and warm apple pie and an endless supply of Belgian chocolate. And hubby to hold my hand, but when I say that hubby just smiles and shakes his head, reminding me that he doesn’t believe in stuff like that. He is planning on returning as a bluebell.
“Or a lupin, seeing as you love them so much,” he says with a smile that grows softer when he sees the tears in my eyes. Eternity without him seems sort of pointless, actually. That makes him lean forward to kiss my brow.

Ultimately, all we have is now. As yet, there is no elixir that adds years to our lives, no magical rejuvenation that has us springing out of bed at eighty while feeling twenty-five. Tomorrow there may be, and humanity will collectively have to address the challenges poised by such an invention. But for now, grab hold of your life and savour it. Life is short, and no matter how many gambolling lambs may be waiting in the afterlife, only this life is a certainty. Live it to the full, people. Marvel at the world that surrounds us, walk barefoot through dewy grass, wade along the seashore under a starlit sky. And when you see a bluebell – or a lupin – stop for a moment and consider just how lucky you are. You are alive. Not bad, hey?

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